You could trace the popularity of Northern Thai cuisine in the United States by simply considering khao soi, the fragrant, intensely flavorful curry noodle soup that is regarded as Chiang Mai’s signature dish.
When Andy Ricker launched his Portland restaurant Pok Pok a decade ago, khao soi was still as far outside the American culinary vocabulary as surströmming. Then came the awards: Pok Pok was named Portland’s Restaurant of the Year by The Oregonian in 2007 and one of the Top 10 Best New Restaurants in America by GQ in 2009, Ricker was given the James Beard Award for Best Chef Northwest in 2011, and Pok Pok NY was awarded a Michelin star last year.
Given all of that, it would seem that L.A. — home to the famously diverse Thai Town — appeared to be missing an important regional option. Where were the bowls of khao soi, the fiery nam prik chili dips and the wild Isaan sausages?
It would be hard to envision a more emphatic solution than the 2011 arrival of Night + Market, Kris Yenbamroong’s hugely successful Northern Thai–focused project. West Hollywood was not only home to Isaan and grilled pork collar in a groovy setting but also to that khao soi, which was as intense and complex as any fanatic could want. Night + Market and its sequel, Night + Market Song in Silver Lake, became the benchmark for Thai cooking in Los Angeles.
It’s probably not surprising that a restaurant called Khao Soi opened in Thai Town a couple of weeks ago. A quick glance at the menu brought excitement: There was khao soi and also Northern-style larb salads, the popular street vermicelli dish called kanom jeen and the pair of chili dips called nam prik num and nam prik ong. A deeper look at the menu revealed some obvious influence from Yenbamroong, including the addition of luu suk, the MSG and pork blood soup that has inspired as many words in the food blogosphere as any dish in Los Angeles.
The restaurant — from its patchwork metal shelters reminiscent of Chiang Mai’s street food stalls to its menu typeface — even looks like something Yenbamroong designed.
Last week, Yenbamroong sent out an email declaring that he would no longer serve luu suk. He provided information about where the dish came from and what inspired him to cook it in the first place. Notably, he explained that his version of the dish, which involves cooked blood rather than the traditional raw blood in order to meet U.S. health standards, does not exist in Thailand. He explained the dish was something he had a personal connection with and served primarily as a way to express his vision for the restaurant. He didn’t explain exactly why he had decided to table the dish, but he noted that “there’s a restaurant somewhere between WeHo and Song that pretty much lifted my entire menu, word for word, so if you’re craving it, go check them out.” It wasn’t hard to connect the dots: The restaurant he was referring to was Khao Soi. (Note: This was confirmed by Yenbamroong.)
This is obviously problematic. Yenbamroong was innovative and thorough in his execution of Night + Market; the menu is personal, the décor is intentional, and the drinks are thoughtfully considered. It would appear that the group behind Khao Soi is attempting to literally replicate that vision without much careful consideration of its own. Even the description of khao soi on its menu is almost identical to an earlier version of a Night + Market menu.
(UPDATE 9/26: Parinda Thongkom, the proprietor of Khao Soi, tells L.A. Weekly that she copied her dish descriptions from Google because her “English is not good.” She also says that a version of blood soup with cooked blood, though rare, does exist in Thailand and that her mother knows a recipe for it. She also says, regarding blood soup, that her Thai customers “ask for it often.” Thongkom acknowledges that Night + Market's success with khao soi was an inspiration. She says she “saw how popular khao soi was at [Night + Market],” and it influenced her decision to make khao soi her restaurant's theme.)
But the existence of Khao Soi is also tangible proof that we’re in the midst of a revolution, where a Thai restaurant can exist without serving Massaman curry or chicken satay. Along with Ricker, Yenbamroong has become a key figure in the popularization of Northern Thai and Isaan cuisines in the United States. Maybe Khao Soi is the face of that influence.
And maybe this all ignores the most important question: Is the food interesting at Khao Soi? It helps that there are a dozen different kinds of khao soi, including versions with pork and seafood. The sai oua, the Northern-style sausage, and the kanom jeen, the tomato-based curry noodle soup, are almost bland in comparison to what you could find down the street at Pailin, and the moo yang, the grilled pork dish for which Night + Market is also famous, doesn’t have the punch of carnivorous glory that you could get there or at an alternative like Isaan Station.
But the nam prik num is appropriately fiery, the gang hung lay curry is smoky enough to pass for barbecue, and the salads are well executed. Khao Soi is a good Northern-style addition to Thai Town, even if it’s not mobilizing a movement.
And the luu suk, for what it’s worth, is not yet available. Maybe they realized they couldn’t find a recipe.
Khao Soi by Inthanon Thai, 5907 Hollywood Blvd., Thai Town; (323) 464-1790.